Leaving Paradise and Finding Sanctuary

I have a story to tell. I’m choosing to tell it, not because it’s anybody’s business and not because I need attention or approval , but because it’s something that I’ve been intentionally vague about and that fact is making me feel duplicitous. Even more so, I’m telling it in support of anyone out there who has gone through, or is going through, something similar. Whoever you are — you’re not crazy. Listen to your own inner voice. Trust yourself. You’re going to be okay.

Six years ago I stopped attending the church I was born into and raised up in: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I’m not here to talk about the specifics of why I made that choice but I do want to paint a picture of the emotional journey I have taken. Keep in mind that my experience is my own and I don’t present it as some kind of universal truth — it’s only my experience.

Beliefs are the stories we tell ourselves to explain why we don’t do bad stuff to each other, why we are responsible for our offspring, why we are good citizens; but the real reasons for our behavior are probably much simpler and universal to many cultures and people of all belief systems. The truth is, we are catapulting through space on a giant rock full of scary monsters and our beliefs are the expressions and stories we use to talk about that experience. The varieties of philosophies to explain existence are as endlessly imaginative and creative as the human mind.

I was raised in the philosophy of personal revelation and the one true gospel of Christ restored upon the earth on April 6th, 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr., the son of a poor farmer. Instead of feeling grateful, from the time I was very small I felt weighed down by the “Plan of Salvation” and how it applied (or didn’t apply) to my fractured family. I sagged under the weight of it. I was always jumping from one terrible family trauma to another. The divorce of my parents led to grief, anger, flaring tempers, accusations, failed mediation, and years of looming court dates, If it was true that the righteous receive blessings, I was sure I was the absolute worst person ever, but I slogged on because it seemed like the only option despite the fact that every day, parts of me felt as if they were dying.

Through it all I conformed to the requirements set forth by the chosen and inspired leaders of the church because I knew it was the only way to eventually be happy. In my family, and in the Mormon community, I felt protected… but never safe. I was daily tracing the path of the Plan of Happiness but I couldn’t figure out how to actually feel happy. It took effort to laugh and be silly, or to be interested in life like everyone else seemed to naturally be. It’s a lot of work to fake like you’re alive when you feel like you’re dying — when it feels like one day your soul will just let go of your body and whatever is left of you will swirl away into the unknown like a piece of litter in rush-hour traffic.

The church was like a house where I kept every aspect of my identity and where I always returned after a long day; I was anchored to the gospel by stories, responsibilities, tests, and milestones, reinforced by group pride as well as a sense of disconnect from the outside world. I was reassured by the choices of my ancestors. I was becoming a heavy-lifter for my faith by holding all doubts and questions at arm’s length just outside the edge of my consciousness, day in and day out. It was exhausting but necessary to reach the ultimate goal.

As I grew I was learning to serve others by giving away pieces of myself; I was being taught that wisdom could only be gained through suffering — like a tree pruned down to a nub for its own good or a piece of coal pressed for two billion years until it finally sparkled. Meanwhile I lived every day with religious and familial trauma, buried under smiles and deference to the priesthood.

At no point would I have minded letting go of my life, not even a little bit, but threats of eternal damnation tied my hands. Dying meant continuing on in a version of the afterlife which involves judgment, groveling, and becoming God’s eternal foot soldier. Since I couldn’t imagine that death would magically make me a happy person, I preferred to disappear. I wanted to not exist anymore. Never mind that lots of things were happening in my life during this time, good and bad — my internal world, with all its requirements and condemnations, continued to be independently painful.

At age 19 I met my husband. We married two years later and started a family. We learned things, met people, went places — all good stuff — and today my life is built out of these lovely, sturdy blocks that he and I laid down in our first decade and a half together. I am proud of all that we have accomplished and all that we have survived. Through it all I managed the day to day pain by becoming emotionally dormant as best I could: I defaulted to my husband’s preferences and the church’s standards. I tried to focus on being a good girl: the best girl ever, in fact. The times when I failed, I despaired. When I succeeded, I felt I broke even for a blessed moment.

My experiences in the LDS church are unique to me, influenced by my personality and my upbringing. My experiences do not represent the experiences of others who were raised within a similar religious framework. I felt “different” as a child. My family was different. I didn’t fit in. I’m an introvert; I live in my head. Feeling obligated to maintain social connections, engage in surface interactions, and fulfill social responsibilities in a large group of people I’m not even related to was always hugely stressful for me. My mental health suffered from the increased social workload. It was a sort of Olympic triathlon event to keep everyone around me happy and my responsibilities fulfilled. There was never a time I didn’t wonder if I was good enough. I worked hard to fulfill the good girl requirements: be pleasant, look pretty (but don’t look sexy or you’ll give people the wrong idea), and always be friendly and approachable to everyone, even if they’re creepy. (Also non-members can’t be trusted but you should still be super friendly.)

I felt I was constantly wrestling for forgiveness while also struggling to forgive those who had hurt me. I was tightly bound by a web of oaths and duties. I always did my part — I read my scriptures every day, I prayed about which schools my kids should attend, I listened to conference talks in my ear buds while I cleaned the house, and I anxiously fed my two boys a steady stream of gospel logic; but my faithfulness did not bring me enduring peace or joy. I thought it was enough that I possessed the secret code to decipher all quandaries and extract meaning from even the mundane, but it was an excitement coupled with dread. I began to realize that the code was not useful: it could not predict the future and it did not make me a more functional person.

Despite my best efforts, I was all the time on a collision course with a big wall, even though I didn’t know it. It was only a matter of when I would run out of road. The pavement abruptly ended in 2015. Having lived thirty-three years and experienced many things, I inadvertently proved false (through my own life experiences) the spiritual “truths” I had never questioned. It wasn’t something I decided to do — it was something that happened to me. I was merely an observer.

Suddenly nothing made sense anymore. I hit an impassable boundary like a castle wall and it was as if I was catapulted into the nothingness of space, where I floated in the vast darkness, untethered from every solid thing, for several disorienting days. I asked myself: who am I? What is real? What is the story? What planet am I on? I was frightened but soon enough I began to notice that my heretical thoughts had not caused the world to end. I was actually fine; in one piece; safe.

And then there was stillness. I took a deep breath. I felt my soul meld into alignment with my body. I smiled a real, genuine smile — in fact I couldn’t stop smiling and for the next few days I kept looking at myself in the mirror, so happy to see the face of my old friend who had been missing for many, many years. I could feel my deep, chronic wounds knitting themselves back together. It was a welcome relief and a homecoming. I chose to embrace the curiosity, awe, and wonder that poured in. I was glad for the freedom to ponder the mystery. I held the universe in my hands — the whole universe — and I understood it was my birthright.

Six years have passed and I still relish the clarity and autonomy that I newly possess. It is an easy chair that welcomes me no matter how hard and scary life gets. I regret the years I didn’t hear my own inner voice; I regret losing myself in someone else’s heaven for three decades; I don’t regret my life or my choices. I love life. I love my family. I’m happy I exist. Since that time six years ago I’ve never again wished I could disappear. I no longer feel helpless. I’m not unworthy or undeserving. That old familiar despair has vanished. I’m me. I’m lit up on the inside. My emotional and spiritual well-being is homegrown now. I’m no longer responsible for the elusive “salvation” of my husband or children. I have no expectations for my own abilities or for what life may hold in store for me, but I am gratified that I have chosen to be brave and to follow my own path wherever it leads.

I have never second-guessed my decision to not participate in the LDS faith because I am certain that a loving universal power would not want me to continue in a belief system that damages my self-esteem and arrests my potential, no matter how true it may have once seemed. I remember vividly how it felt when the light came flooding in, washing over me in waves of clarity and serenity, generations of chains crashing around me. I was broken for so long and I couldn’t heal until I removed everything that was toxic.

Spiritual beliefs are unprovable, and therefore I have come to the conclusion that it does not matter all that much if they are true or not — what matters is whether they are useful. Beliefs should acknowledge the soul, light the path, and affirm one’s identity; your beliefs should serve you, not the other way around. If you have to curtail your curiosity, creativity, generosity, intuition, or natural love in order to serve your belief… you’ve messed up somewhere. A useful belief inspires positivity, compassion, creativity, connection, and hope — all the things a human needs to thrive. (If an authoritative person asserts that a particular belief will inevitably inspire good feelings, do not feel guilty or confused if instead you feel fear or despair. Know that it’s not you that is lacking — it’s the belief.)

Looking back, my beliefs took over my thoughts in ways that were profoundly unhealthy: I was scrupulous in the way my clothes lay across my body, covering everything just so; I was concerned about whether I was expanding my circle of influence wide enough to bring in converts; I was concerned that maybe the junk food I ate would make it hard to hear the Spirit sending me promptings; I was ashamed of my worldly pursuits and my lack of serious preparation for the second coming of Christ. I spent too much time daydreaming of how great everything would be when I was dead. I spent too much time hiding under the protective wings of the priesthood, kept safe on condition of my obedience.

Now I am reinterpreting everything. I am taking the time for hobbies instead of testimony-building. I enjoy movies and books and road trips with my family. I enjoy Sundays in the park, bare legs, genuine smiles, playful breezes, and hot cups of coffee. I enjoy simply existing.

Building a new life is like making a patchwork quilt from scratch — you have to choose each piece and stitch it in by hand. The church is like a warm fuzzy blanket that I was wrapped in at birth; it was with me everywhere I went and it brought a certain familiar comfort. Then one day I outgrew it. It was threadbare and too small, and it did not possess the magical qualities I once believed it did. I will always cherish it in my own way but it’s time to move on.

My new quilt can be made to fit. I get to hand-pick every piece. I get to choose the size, thickness and texture. It will take hard work and clear intention to gather the pieces and assemble them cohesively, and I’m sure I’ll end up crying and ripping out crooked seams occasionally, but my life will begin to take shape.

The warm fuzzy church quilt that was handed to me all those years ago was ready-made, one-size-fits-all, no assembly required — but I never learned to be intentional; I only learned to be obedient.

I have a right to create my own life. I have a need to be free. I deserve the truth. I deserve to be cherished. I have the right to participate in ethical relationships without ulterior motives and without threats against my well-being or self-worth. I have the right to pursue knowledge and growth in any way I choose, without restrictions, threats, or punishments. I am the story-maker. I claim authority over myself. I relish the feeling of spiritual autonomy and I am fed by it. I am proud of myself — proud that I was able to remove the barriers so that I could heal myself. Now here I am reaching out to touch the void, asking for truth that belongs only to me and trusting myself to know the answer. I do know the answer. The answer is permission: permission to rebuild my own inner sanctuary.

I guess you could claim that I’m not a Mormon anymore but I’m not sure that I ever was one… I think I was always just a tiny bright spark from the universe, insignificant but precious, infinitesimal but part of an unfathomably expansive whole. We all are. I am not lost: I have returned. I am not fallen away: I have been restored.

Introvert Extraordinaire -- trapped in my head and I can't get out.

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